Google needs to give the AirPods better competition

In the race for in-ear AI, Apple has the clear advantage despite the fact that their intelligent assistant is one of the dumbest of the bunch.

Yesterday, reports emerged that Apple was working on a pair of follow-ups to its Airpods headphones that could bring them always-on Siri functionality as well as a splash-proof design. As we think about all the things that Apple could do right with its next set of wireless earbuds, it’s easy to reflect on all that Google did wrong with its Pixel Buds and how much of an opportunity they still have.

Google Assistant lends so much potential to a pair of smart wireless earbuds from Google. The fact is that Siri doesn’t hold a candle to Google Assistant in many ways, and while the functionality of voice control on the AirPods is largely focused on music and calls, the superior intelligence of Google Assistant should make them a much clearer companion for a set of earbuds.

Hardware is still very much a side project for Google, but as the company prioritizes home assistant hardware, it really doesn’t make sense that they’re not putting more resources into a pair of wireless headphones. The Pixel Buds need a more purposeful design that minimizes friction and delivers Assistant insights more effortlessly in a package that feels like more than just a follow-on.

The AirPods are an engineering marvel, and while some of the functionality of the Pixel Buds was interesting — mainly their ability to interface with the Pixel 2 for language translation — they fell flat on design. Google needs to rethink its wireless earbuds from the ground-up and focus more on creating something with the sleekness of the Pixel phones rather than the fabric-obsessed friendliness of their Home devices. Cutting the woven cord and moving to a truly wireless form factor is a necessary step, as is shrinking down the size of the Bud part of the product. It’s really not about the sound quality as much as it is about the connectivity and the lack of friction. While FastPair has been a great step in simplifying the bluetooth pairing, there are still some quirks that aren’t present with Apple’s W1 chip.

While Siri is always quick to refer you to search results when it doesn’t have an answer (a frequent occurrence), Assistant’s optimization for its display-free Home devices has led it to order functionality around the assumption that there’s not always a screen available to default to. Today, Google announced that it was bringing location-based notifications and voice-optimized routine functionality to its Home devices so it could complete regular custom tasks without you having to pepper it with commands, stuff like this would be ideal for earbuds that are always-listening, something that Google could do much more with than Apple.

Even as features take months to roll out, Google has still shown a degree of nimbleness on the voice assistant front that Apple can’t match in annual WWDC keynotes. While Amazon is just as quick with Alexa, Google Assistant’s deepening integration with Android establishes an arena where they should be the clear champion.

AirPods are clearly the best wireless earbud that an Apple user can own and even with the reduced functionality that still might be true of Android phones. People are building tools to bring iOS-only feature sets to Android and that fact alone should suggest Google take a more serious look at its own hardware and the opportunity that it’s losing out on.